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Israel in a Bind

Jun 07, 2024
  • He Wenping

    Senior Research Fellow, Charhar Institute and West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences


Smoke and explosion following an Israeli bombardment inside the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. AP

As the conflict in Gaza persists, there has been a notable rise in civilian casualties among Palestinians and an escalation of the humanitarian crisis. At the same time, the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken a more confrontational attitude toward the global call for a cease-fire and an end to the war.

Moreover, as Israel has slipped further into international isolation, the United States, its most powerful ally, appears to be too preoccupied to continue its support. In this context, Israel may find it increasingly difficult to count on the United States for its war effort.

First, Israel’s iron-fisted policy in Gaza has eroded European support. Since the outbreak of the conflict in October, Israel has carried out extensive and brutal military operations in Gaza, including, in April, an airstrike on vehicles of World Central Kitchen, an international NGO that provides food relief. The incident resulted in the deaths of seven relief workers, all of whom were nationals of Western countries.

As a result of such excessive force, European attitudes toward Israel have shifted from sympathy to dissatisfaction and even condemnation. French President Macron and the European Union, which represents all of Europe, have unmistakably expressed their opposition to Israel’s attack on Rafah, a densely populated area in southern Gaza, wishing to avoid the displacement of Palestinian civilians and a larger-scale humanitarian disaster. But Israel turned a deaf ear to this appeal.

“No amount of pressure, no decision by any international forum, will stop Israel from defending itself,” Netanyahu said.

As their efforts to admonish and restrain Israel have proved ineffective, European countries have begun to recognize the Palestinian state. Norway, Spain and Ireland officially recognized the Palestine on May 28, a date that Spain called historic. The three countries hoped their example would have a strong symbolic impact and encourage more countries to join the ranks of the 140 or so that have already recognized the state. Currently, 19 European countries have done so, and so have 10 of the 27 EU member states. Even staunch allies of the United States, including the United Kingdom and France, are considering following suit. An enraged Netanyahu can only respond by lodging protests and recalling Israeli diplomats from these countries.

Second, Israel has been accused of genocide by South Africa in the International Court of Justice, and Netanyahu could face an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. South Africa, though far away from the battlefields of the Middle East, has known suffering under the apartheid system. It accuses Israel of implementing a genocidal policy in the Gaza Strip since the end of last year.

On Jan. 26, the ICJ, based in The Hague, Netherlands, issued a ruling ordering Israel to take immediate measures to prevent acts of genocide and improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Then on May 24, the court issued modified orders, demanding that Israel immediately halt its military offensive in Rafah. That move came just days after the ICC’s chief prosecutor sought arrest warrants for Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Hamas leaders, and the plan received support from France, Germany and other European countries.

On May 30, China and Arab states issued a joint statement on the Palestinian issue as they convened at the 10th Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing. In the statement, China and 22 member states of the Arab League condemned Israel’s ongoing violations against the Palestinian people, denounced its violations in Rafah, its bombing of refugee camps and its control of the Rafah crossing.

They also opposed forcibly driving the Palestinian people out of their homeland. They called on the UN Security Council to adopt a binding resolution to achieve an immediate, comprehensive and sustained cease-fire and halt the forced transfer of Palestinians, ensure the delivery of aid throughout the Gaza Strip and implement resolutions to restore normal life in Gaza. Both sides condemned the United States for using its UN veto power to prevent Palestine from becoming a full member of the body.

Washington is now in a bind when it comes to supporting Israel, which is becoming isolated internationally. Israel may find it more difficult to gain Washington’s endorsement. Here are two options for the Biden administration:

First, the administration could continue to provide support for Israel. However, this will deepen the rift with European allies and undermine the U.S. image as a global moral leader. Domestically, it may result in declining support for President Biden — or even a Waterloo moment for him on election day.

Second, the administration could slowly (or better yet quickly) distance itself from Netanyahu’s government, which could also have electoral consequences. But leading the way in promoting the two-state solution would help to mend America’s division with Europe and prevent further damage to the moral reputation of the United States on the world stage.



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